A Brief History of John Baldessari (RIP) Narrated by Tom Waits: A Tribute to the Late “Godfather of Conceptual Art”

All mod­ern art is con­cep­tu­al in some way, bound to aes­thet­ic the­o­ries and com­bat­ive man­i­festoes against com­pla­cen­cy. But only in the move­ment known as cap­i­tal “C” Con­cep­tu­al Art do the ideas become more impor­tant than the objects. Con­cep­tu­al Art traces its his­to­ry to Mar­cel Duchamp and the Sur­re­al­ists who declared war on the bour­geois cul­tur­al sta­tus quo.

Lat­er exper­i­men­tal artists did the same by ele­vat­ing mass cul­ture to the sta­tus of high art: adver­tis­ing, com­ic books, Hol­ly­wood spec­ta­cle, and—in the past twen­ty-five years or so—the Inter­net: Pop Art fore­ground­ed con­cepts over objects by means of pas­tiche and meta­com­men­tary. The work of L.A. artist Ed Ruscha, for exam­ple, cen­ters slo­gans and clichés over ambigu­ous images that some­times look like stock desk­top back­grounds.

Both Duchamp and Ruscha were influ­ences on Amer­i­can Con­cep­tu­al­ist John Baldessari, who passed away yes­ter­day at age 88, leav­ing behind a lega­cy as “arguably America’s most influ­en­tial Con­cep­tu­al artist,” accord­ing to L.A. Times crit­ic Christo­pher Knight. Born of Euro­pean par­ents and raised in South­ern Cal­i­for­nia, Baldessari incor­po­rat­ed humor, satire, and Pop Art ele­ments into his work.

He did not begin his career, how­ev­er, as part of a move­ment, and he nev­er expect­ed to have much of an audi­ence. In the ear­ly six­ties, he was teach­ing high school art in San Diego and felt “total­ly iso­lat­ed,” he says in the inter­view with Knight below. Baldessari resigned him­self to a “nor­mal life,” paint­ing when he could on the week­ends. These con­di­tions inspired him to “try to fig­ure out what art meant for me, what was the bot­tom line.”

Baldessari answers the ques­tion, to laughs from the audi­ence, with typ­i­cal lacon­ic wit: “any­thing you put on can­vas is art.” Baldessari reversed Duchamp’s for­mu­la. Put a cin­derblock in a muse­um, he says, and it becomes art through con­text, but put a can­vas on the street and it doesn’t become some­thing else. It always retains its sta­tus as an art object. Such objects, for Baldessari, served main­ly as mate­r­i­al plat­forms for ideas.

“Pic­tures are not enough, Baldessari seems to sug­gest,” writes Alex Green­berg­er in an ART­news trib­ute. “Con­cepts mat­ter equal­ly, if not even more.” Baldessari has been called “the god­fa­ther of Con­cep­tu­al Art” for this insight, says Tom Waits says in his nar­ra­tion of “A Brief His­to­ry of John Baldessari” at the top. He’s also been called a “mas­ter of appro­pri­a­tion” and “Sur­re­al­ist for the dig­i­tal age.” He nev­er lim­it­ed him­self to just can­vas but worked in almost every medi­um of visu­al and tex­tu­al art.

Those media includ­ed cred­it card and iPhone app design. Art isn’t only mate­r­i­al: it is vir­tu­al, ephemer­al, and dis­pos­able. Baldessari demon­strat­ed his own com­mit­ment to destroy­ing the past when, in 1970, he burned all of the work he had made between 1953 and 1966 for a con­cep­tu­al piece called The Cre­ma­tion Project. But he wasn’t an art world anar­chist. As he toyed with and chal­lenged tra­di­tion, he also helped instill it.

Baldessari become famous enough to have war­rant­ed a guest spot on The Simp­sons (and was award­ed a Nation­al Medal of Arts). He became wealthy enough by far to quit his day job. But he nev­er stopped teach­ing, from high school to posts at CalArts, UCLA, and UC San Diego. “I’ve taught all my life,” he said in 2003, “Every­thing from grade school to col­lege to juve­nile delin­quents.”

We might be inclined to see in his teach­ing phi­los­o­phy a key to under­stand­ing his con­cep­tu­al uni­verse: “I set out to right all the things wrong with my own art edu­ca­tion. But I found that you can’t real­ly teach art, you can just sort of set the stage for it.”

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Hear Mar­cel Duchamp Read “The Cre­ative Act,” A Short Lec­ture on What Makes Great Art, Great

Roy Licht­en­stein and Andy Warhol Demys­ti­fy Their Pop Art in Vin­tage 1966 Film

When Bri­an Eno & Oth­er Artists Peed in Mar­cel Duchamp’s Famous Uri­nal

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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  • Rodolfo Coliqueo says:

    Me quedó ” toda cosa que pon­gas en un lien­zo es arte” creo que es una llave para entrar a todos los que tienen el impul­so de despar­ra­mar pin­tu­ra en un lien­zo. me pasó en la secun­daria cuan­do la pro­fe­so­ra de dibu­jos nos mostró obras de Jack­son Pol­lock. Y otros pin­tores min­i­mal­is­tas. Ten­go var­ios cuadros pin­ta­dos ‚pero bien guarda­dos ( para que no los vea nadie), un salu­do.

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